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A silhouette of a bison at sunset.

"Bison Sunset" is one of Jim Brandenburg's 43 photograps on display through December at the Bell Museum.

Splendor in the grass

The prairie springs to life in Bell Museum exhibit of Jim Brandenburg photos

By Deane Morrison

The sun has all but set on the great Minnesota prairie. Once stretching over a broad expanse of the western part of the state, native prairie is now reduced to a few island preserves.

But renowned nature photographer Jim Brandenburg is doing all he can to bring it back. In his exhibit Touch the Sky: Prairie Photographs by Jim Brandenburg, at the University's Bell Museum, Brandenburg shares 43 photographs of prairie life, from thundering buffalo to delicate dove eggs, that he hopes will kindle a renewed appreciation for an ecosystem that has been plowed and paved into near-extinction. A University graduate, Brandenburg has donated nature photography to the University's "Even Mother Nature Loves Maroon and Gold" poster series. In March he received an honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University. The first photo that greets a visitor to "Touch the Sky" is a field beneath a white cloud shaped unmistakably like a dove. The site is Brandenburg's birthplace, and he took the photo the day after his father's burial a few miles away. "My grandfather Henry Brandenburg helped plow the prairie. Four generations later, I'm trying to preserve it," muses Brandenburg. On the back wall, almost side by side, hang pictures of what may be the most maligned prairie creature and one of the most beloved. The prairie rattlesnake faces the camera, its long forked tongue probing the air for scents. The snake had been warming itself on a stretch of road when Brandenburg happened by. Not taking kindly to his presence, it struck at his camera lens and spattered venom all over it. In contrast, the picture of two bison, taken at least 25 years ago, is the soul of serenity; the beasts seem as oblivious to the camera as to the blizzard that has frosted them a shaggy white. In Brandenburg's personal favorite, the viewer looks down on a herd of buffalo rushing through a sea of fog. The fog is condensed water vapor given off by the buffalo themselves, after running for a long time in cold weather. Another bison-related shot shows a "bison rub," a rock worn smooth about three feet above the ground by 10,000 years of bison rubbing against it. "Scientists used to say the rock had been worn by the wind. But then why would it be just at this one height [three feet]?" Brandenburg comments. Forces of nature are starkly present throughout the exhibit. From the sun dogs (virtual suns caused by light refraction in atmospheric ice crystals) to the prairie fires to the lightning storms, Brandenburg captures the beauty that sweeps across prairies unhindered by mountains or hidden by trees. The openness of the prairie also contributes to its vulnerability. Even the predatory ferruginous hawk must feed its young on the ground, nesting trees being too scarce. Or note how the long, curved blades of cordgrass drape protectively around the eggs in a mourning dove nest, shielding them from the eyes of predators. Brandenburg praises the state of Minnesota for its work to restore prairies and University researchers for their studies, notably at Cedar Creek Natural History Area, of prairie grasses. Long ago Brandenburg worked with Ed Cushing, a University professor of ecology, evolution and behavior, as he cataloged prairie life. "I'd like to have done that," says Brandenburg, who founded the Brandenburg Prairie Foundation to restore and expand prairie in southwestern Minnesota. He chose photography instead of science, but sees his career and the exhibit as a way to help accomplish the same goals. "I hope people will have a new appreciation for the prairie and what we can do to preserve it," he says about the exhibit. "Minnesota is a great place. I'm trying to give something back to it." The exhibit will run through Dec. 31. Read more about the exhibit.

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Prairie son: Noted wildlife photographer Jim Brandenburg protects the land of his youth